"The only true romantic musician produced by Russia," in the words of his friend Boris de Schloezer in 1919, Scriabin, a contemporary of Rasputin, was a loner, emotionally, temperamentally and stylistically removed from the last Tsarists to whose number he belonged historically. In the Mahlerian sense, his philosophy, spiritual and physical, was an embracement of the world. He spent his hours in mystic contemplation, in psychic transcendence. He spent his days looking for ecstasy, the "highest rising of activity ...the summit". He spent his years loving womankind. He spent a whole life worshipping the private mysterium of an astral neosphere only he knew anything about.. "I will ignite your imagination with the delight of my promise. I will bedeck you in the excellence of my dreams. I will veil the sky of your wishes with the sparkling stars of my creation. I bring not truth, but freedom".
One of the legendary cosmic soul journeys of the twentieth century - massively imagined, massively realised, massively risky - the cyclic Third Symphony in C minor, the Divine Poem (1902-04), dates from a time of significant change in Scriabin's life, during which period he left his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, read Nietzsche and Marx, seduced pubescent girls, abandoned his wife Vera and four children for a new young mistress, Tatyana, and went to live in lake-land Switzerland in the hope that such a refuge might release new ideas within him. Years later, the early writing of the symphony, at a country dacha near Maloyaroslavets during the spring of 1903, was vividly remembered by Pasternak: "Just as sun and shade alternated in the forest and birds sang and flew from one branch, bits and pieces from the Divine Poem, which was being composed at the piano in the next-door dacha, were flying and rolling in the air. Oh God, what a music it was!
The symphony was crashing and collapsing again and again, like a town under artillery fire, and then building and growing again out of the wreckage and ruins. It was brimming with an essence chiselled out to the point of insanity, and as new as the forest was new, full of life and breathing freshness". In November 1903 Scriabin played through the piano draft "for the crowd of St. Petersburg composers, and what a surprise! Glazunov was delighted and Rimsky-Korsakov was also very favourable". Announced as "a grandiose creation which transports the listener fantastically into another world", the first "manifestation" took place in Paris on 29th May 1905, under Nikisch for a fee of $750. The Russian premiere in St Petersburg, on 8th March 1906, with Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev at the rehearsals, was directed by Felix Blumenfeld.
The French language "programme" of the work -not so much Scriabin's (lost) poem as a condensed explanation, by Tatyana and de Schloezer, her brother -centres on the Ego, divided into Man-God and Slave-Man. These forces struggle with each other, experience the discord and concord of human experience, and finally through unity and blissful ecstasy attain freedom "in the sky of other worlds". There are three principal (sonata-form) chapters: "Struggles" (Allegro, "mysterious, tragic", "red" C minor); "Sensuous Delights" (Lento, "sublime", "whitish-blue" E major -the distinguishing key contrast of not only Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second but also Liszt's Faust Symphony); and "Divine Play" (Allegro, "with radiant joy", "red" C major). A short germinal Prologue (Lento, C minor) encloses a trinity of leitmotifs: "Divine Grandeur" (a unisonal bass idea derived from the opening of the unfinished D minor Symphonic Poem [Allegro] of 1896-97, Naxos 8.553587); "Summons to Man"; and "Fear to approach, suggestive of Flight". These are combined with, or are the source of, the many various ideas running through the work, reaching a climax in the so-called Ego theme (second subject) of the finale.
Related to the Fifth Piano Sonata and scored for a large orchestra including eight horns, "Russian" bells, organ, multiply divided strings and solo violin, the C major Poem of Ecstasy or Fourth Symphony (conceived 1905, completed summer 1907 - January 1908) was first heard in New York on 10th December 1908 (Modest Altschuler), the Russian public premiere following in St Petersburg on 31st January 1909 (Blumenfeld). "The nerves of the audience were worn and racked as nerves are seldom assailed even in these days," ventured W. J. Henderson in the New York Sun. "The hero of the concert was Scriabin, composer, who is not yet forty but whose already well-known name ignites the most fervent controversies: for some his music is utter nonsense, for others it is a revelation of genius... After the performance of the Poem of Ecstasy under the baton of Blumenfeld, the composer was wildly called for, and his success was enormous" (Rech, 2nd February; 1909). "What a work of genius!" Prokofiev enthused (along with Miaskovsky) - "But later, when the intellectual coldness of some of Scriabin's 'flights' became discernible, that opinion had to be downgraded a bit". This "radiant poem," Scriabin's pupil, the pianist Maria Nemenov-Lunz, recalled, "was composed in a tiny half-dark garret rented from the owner of a greengrocer's [in Bogliasco on the Italian Riviera]. There was a jolly din and hum of voices in the shop from early morning until late into the night... for composing he had a broken piano, which was a tone-and-a-half lower than normal pitch and was rented from a cafe. Trains roared past the windows. Despite all this, despite constant worries about making ends meet, Alexander never uttered a word of complaint... he was working on his new composition in ecstasy, with feverish enthusiasm". The hundreds of surviving sketches and changes show just how hard he had to labour over his creation.
Structurally, the music is in the form of a single-movement tone-poem consisting of a tripartite sonata Allegro volando (exposition, development, reprise) flanked by a double motif slow prologue (Andante, lento: "human striving after the ideal" [longing theme, flute], the Ego [dream theme, clarinet]) and a quick, diatonically affirmative coda (Allegro molto). The sonata core features three subject groups: (a) "The Soaring Flight of the Spirit" (flute), (b) Human Love (solo violin, the receptive female), and (c) "The Will to Rise" (trumpet, the phallic male [victory theme]), Scriabin intended the whole to be an orgiastic, orgasmic excitation and release through mounting climax: descriptively, the final blinding gush of "red" C major spells "the union of the Cosmic Eros in the final act of love between the male principle of the Creator and the Woman-World". And he wrote a theosophical/symbolist poem to go with it, the self-assertion, the "I am" of the Spirit, which he was wont to recite to anyone who would listen. Realising, however, that its independence from the sound event might confuse, he withheld it from the published score, advising instead that "conductors ...should start by approaching [the work] as pure music". Pictorial, associative suggestion nevertheless always remained important, "When you listen to Ecstasy, look straight into the eye of the Sun!"
Ates Orga, 1996